Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A Change in the Status Quo

Grade: A

Grade: A

When Captain America throws his mighty shield… it looks really cool.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a necessary story to tell for Cap, it’s his origin story. It’s a good movie, that really captures the look of the 40s, and retells his creation rather faithfully – and, more importantly, with feeling. Winter Soldier, on the other hand, turns the superheroics up to 11. Captain America is now truly the character the fans of his comics know him as. He is not perpetually a man out of time, he can’t be. This movie has Cap acclimatize, at  least somewhat, to the current reality (even using the internet). Neither can he be a naive ultra-patriot in the modern day – this may have been not only commendable, but necessary during WWII, but that is certainly no longer the case as the world is no longer so black-and-white. Not even in the Marvel Universe.

The movie starts off with Rogers working for S.H.I.E.L.D. on covert missions. He is not fond of the nature of some of the work, but when there are hostages to be saved, he is fully on board, and throws himself into combat with energy we have not seen with the captain so far. There were jeers when The Avengers was coming out that he’ll be slightly useless in such a powerhouse team-up, but those complaints can now be put to rest, I think. Joss Whedon did a great job of giving everyone something to do in The Avengers, but he basically had Cap in the role of a regular action movie hero – fighting, jumping, running from explosions efficiently, to be sure, and against opponents most regular people could never withstand, but not really get into super-powered territory that often. Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the character’s fighting style slightly and subtly, and pitted him against the right opponents to really show his skills off for the first time. here, he is blisteringly fast, devastatingly strong, and extraordinarily resiliant. In the very first action sequence he takes out multiple thugs with a single throw of his shield, stealthily infiltrate a ship, and take out Batroc the Leaper while barely breaking a sweat. This is, simply put, good action cinema – exciting, fast, and convincingly lethal.

Captain Rogers is, however, questioning the true motives of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to be using him as they would any other asset – aiming him at the enemy and releasing, telling him little aside from that. He pushes for Nick Fury to divulge exactly what is happening, and gets snippets about a project that is set to eliminate potential hostiles before they even manage to cause any harm – finally, Fury says, they will be ahead of the curve in their war for peace. Cap sticks to his ideals, but does seem to be leaving the scene questioning whether he should stay with the organization, leave, or potentially accept that he is in a dirty world, where dirty deeds may be necessary to save lives. Before he can do this, however, Fury is attacked, and assassinated in Steven Rogers’ own apartment, pitting him against S.H.I.E.L.D. and their head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who assume he must be hiding something. Cap goes on the run with Natasha Romanov, Black Widow, and start uncovering the truth behind the intelligence agency, HYDRA, and the mysterious Winter Soldier that keeps popping up.

The handling of the Black Widow in this movie is spot-on. She was definitely a player in The Avengers, but the character really comes into her own here. In a movie that is essentially about trust (both personal, and in government/authority), the themes would not have resonated as well at all without her presence. Black Widow is not only currently the best superheroine in cinema (never relegated to the role of a damsel in distress), she confident, and intelligent in a way that Captain America is NOT. He is certainly no dummy, but she is the super-spy, and when the pair go on the run, Captain America simply does not have the guile to do it on his own. It is refreshing to see such a strong female character in superhero movies (also flanked by Agent Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, and Agent 13, Emily VanCamp). I hope this sets a good example, and Marvel realizes what they have on their hands well enough to give Widow a solo feature. The Phase 3 movies are being announced soon, and it can’t be all white straight male superheroes again, come on!

The Winter Soldier is appropriately menacing to give Cap and his allies a challenge. Given that he is not the primary threat, but more of a henchman, I must question whether his appearance in the title is truly justified. I like what the Russo brothers did with the Brubaker source material a lot, but I can’t help but notice that the central plot is really not about Captain’s relationship with the Winter Soldier at all, but rather with S.H.I.E.L.D., the modern world, even the concept of who he is. This is one of my only criticisms of the movie, and it’s more of a criticism of the title, truly – the way he and Falcon decide to go after him in the final scene suggests that The Winter Soldier would be a better title for the third movie. This is, of course, a minor gripe. Sebastian Stan does a fine job  – better, in fact, than I expected, given how disarming and utterly non-threatening his Bucky was in the first movie. This is, of course, the nature of the twist, and it is entirely to his credit that Stan pulls it off.

Anthony Macky’s Falcon is a lot of fun – and while the word sidekick may be anathema for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, their relationship certainly approaches it (Falcon says, about Cap “I do what he does, only slower”). He does not have a ton to do outside of the giant action scene in the final act in terms of action, but just as Captain’s counterpart – the modern soldier, who had left the military behind, he is a valuable addition to the Marvel Universe.

Speaking of additions, there are numerous ones on display here. Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre)  may easily return as a hired gun. Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is heavily burned and injured, but presumably both survives and has a major bone to pick with Captain America. Digitized brain Arnim Zola is seemingly destroyed, but could easily have been backed up in another fascility to return. His scene in the movie was probably my favorite, incredibly imaginative and injecting original details, while simultaneously extremely faithful to the comic version of the character. It only occured to me now that the Russo brothers brilliantly introduced a very recognizable and interesting character from the comics for a single scene to deliver the exposition. It’s brilliant, and I for one am filing the trick away for future use (though I can’t imagine where this could be used outside of the Marvel movies). Baron Strucker also makes an appearance, as do Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, in the mid-credits scene.

The biggest change by far, however, is that the movie does not return to the status quo! The storyline does not take the simple and boring route of “everything is well, something goes down , superhero fixes it, eveerything goes back to normal”. Captain America actually changes things! Marvel Universe will literally never be the same! I’m extremely curious to see how the universe proceeds, particularly with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show (name change?).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not my favorite Marvel movie of all time, that remains The Avengers, which is so close to the feeling of reading a superhero comic, it’s crazy. Cap 2 is very, very solid, however – an awesome political/espionage thriller with superheroes. Nearly every Marvel movie has been of a slightly different genre, or embraced different tropes, and this one is a very solid entry in the canon.

Kick-Ass 2 Is Bloody, Occasionally Funny, Rarely Interesting

kickass_two_xlgAs with a lot of movies of late, there seems to be a very genuine disconnect between the Kick-Ass 2‘s supposed message, and what is actually on the screen. While the first one did, to a certain extent, work as a hypothetical “what if somebody decided to be a superhero” for about the first half before devolving into standard ass kicking, this one has characters regularly contradicting themselves. This would, of course, be fine, if the film showed even an ounce of awareness. Instead, the filmmakers decided to try and take these characters seriously without adjusting the actual plot of the movie to accommodate the decision.

Let me show you what I mean. The characters routinely talk about “going out and doing the right thing”, about being a concerned citizen… Yet Kick-Ass, the teen from the first movie, became a superhero not to do the right thing, but because he thought it would be interesting. His motivation was that nobody had done it before; he wasn’t motivated by an overwhelming need to fix the world, or save people. This may be selfish, but at least it’s interesting. You know what is considerably less easy to empathize with, or interesting, than that? Simply being a superhero because you’re bored not being one. Granted, we frequently feel bored in our lives, too, and part of our need for superhero fiction is to alleviate that. The heroes we like, however, are ones that are motivated to act by a grave injustice, or simply an outstanding moral compass.

Another commonly stated theme in the movie is “what if superheroes were in the real world, with real consequences”, but no such world is shown to us. Instead, it is simply an ugly world, with no reality to any of that lack of morality. The thesis of the movie should be “what if superheroes were just bored, and had no sense of morality”. It isn’t that the superheroes do anything particularly nasty, they certainly aren’t portrayed as villains at all. But other than fighting some villains, and beating up some generic thugs, they don’t do anything to help anyone, except for one scene. 

Parents in the film are not the most well represented, which makes sense – this is a film about teenagers, doing things adults wouldn’t approve of. The role of the adults in a movie like this is to be minor obstacles. However, they are so astoundingly understanding, and wise, and kind, that the way they get treated by their offspring is simply absurd, basically being told to shut up regularly for no reason. Then, sentimental promises are made to them, and the movie drives on, secure in the knowledge the promises will be broken.

Now, it’s not all awful. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson is actually given very little to do this time around, despite his pure joy of being a superhero being very infectious the first time around, Chloë Grace Moretz is still a pleasure to see on the screen. Her character, Hit Girl, is probably more violent and foul-mouthed than ever, and actually undergoes a fairly serious character ark throughout the movie. The promise she makes actually holds for a good portion of the movie, we can see she’s really trying to fit in after giving up her crime-fighting identity. And yet, the impact is lessened by the fact that she is no longer eleven. None of that is Moretz’s fault, she’s a very fine young actress, and as I’ve said, the character is still by far the most interesting thing happening on the screen, but part of the reason Kick-Ass was such a hit was that character’s age. Again, the effort put into turning Hit-Girl into a three-dimensional character, and her Carrie-like arc pay off, but it would have worked better if she was the focus of the movie. Incidentally, Moretz is playing Carrie in the upcoming remake; I honestly feel like I watched a comedic preview by seeing her in Kick-Ass. 

There could also be some interesting things happening with Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing the Motherfucker. He kills his mother in the first act, dons her leather bondage gear as his costume, and picks a surprisingly Freudian supervillain name. He subsequently experiences erectile disfunction. All of this could make an interesting portrait of a megalomaniac madman, if any more time was spent on it. The great thing about Kick-Ass was always the willingness to put all of the tropes on the very surface, plane for anyone to see, and that’s still valuable. However, because there is absolutely nothing under the surface except anger and misplaced sexual energy, the obviousness of the cliches does not help.

What’s more, you have a story which simply does not make sense. The Motherfucker recruits his army of bad guys through Twitter; all are invited to his secret lair and paid to be bad. It’s obvious they don’t do any vetting, and that the arch-villain himself is not very smart about what he tweets. After all of the noise made about “real world, real consequences”, the fact that they can’t find him seems absurd considering how clearly public he is about his plans. It’s just mind-numbingly stupid.

I tried to decide if the plot would play better in a comic, and while I do think some of the wonkier moments might look better in a comic, that really wouldn’t make it any less dumb. The differences in the mediums mean that some lines of dialogue, or action shots, might look better in one context than another. The basic fact that the internal logic of the movie is simply nonsensical does not change.

Anyway, I really don’t want to dwell on this any longer. I’m going to go watch the first one, it’s a fun movie. I wish I’d stayed home and re-watched that instead of seeing the second one, actually.

Savages

It is easy to forget, through Oliver Stone’s many more didactic and political films (Wall Street, Nixon, W.), how incredibly stylish the director of Natural Born Killers can be. Whereas that film cuts to the very heart of our culture’s relationship with violence, however, once cannot help but wonder where Savages, a far less self-conscious film in that regard, stands in relation with it. If Savages does have anything to say (and we know Oliver Stone loves somewhat explicative cinema), all of that, regrettably, gets lost in the shuffle of action which is not exiting enough, central characters that are not likable enough, and secondary characters that are too distracting.

The film spends what is functionally the minimal amount of time settings up the characters we are meant to be getting behind for the rest of the film. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two marijuana manufacturers and distributors, are meant to illicit feelings of the lovable outlaws – yes, what they’re doing is illegal, but they’re trying not to hurt people, and really, they’re only selling a plant, right? The entire movies banks on us jumping onboard with this idea, because the plot is simply not set up to support anti-heroes. I recognize that part of the idea of the film is that Ben, the pacifist of the pair, is going to have to cross some lines, whereas Chon is going to maybe mellow out, or maybe just be the sort of force of nature we can’t help but admire in the manner of 80’s action cinema heroes. The movie supports neither of those notions fully, however, giving neither character’s journey adequate screen-time, jumping into violence very quickly. People always tell us in the movie that Ben and Chon “have a nice, clean operation”, but really their organization resembles more closely a paramilitary hippy gang, at which point the viewer is left wondering why we should care about them at all.

Here to provide the answer to that question is is O (Blake Lively), a lover to both of them, and the wholly unnecessary narrator of the film, who promptly proceeds to get kidnapped with the sole aim (both within the narrative, and structurally in the film) of motivating her boyfriends. It isn’t that any of the above-mentioned actors do a bad job, they really don’t. None of their characters, however, are appealing in the least, and therefore lose their grip on the audiences attention in no time at all.

On the other side of the coin, you have the supporting cast. John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, and Salma Hayek are all enjoyable to a fault, willing to push their roles’ believability to the absolute limit as they scream, gesticulate wildly, or simply squint menacingly. Had the movie simply been about them, it could have been precisely the sort of wild abandon summer madness that provides some of the purest entertainment cinema can provide. Put up against a grim, and occasionally over-serious context, however, they simply seem like they’re in the wrong movie.

Oliver Stone’s direction is, without a doubt, inventive and exciting. The camera goes from black and white to Technicolor, and from impressive helicopter shots to the more personal handheld shot from one sudden cut to the next. What this high-octane camerawork is meant to do, however, is ultimately unclear. If it’s meant to simply convey excitement, the movie’s effect is comparable to somebody using a really wild vocabulary and infectious energy to tell a pretty dull story. In the end, the movie is disappointing, because that terrific effort from the director, and some of the actors, could quite simply have been channeled into something with more worthwhile content. As could, incidentally, your attention and time.